Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia

Some faces from 2,500 years ago!

Dave the motorhome has been driving in the dark again, naughty boy, this time to bring us to a nice wide flat car park next to the beach at Tarquinia Lido (N42.22789 E11.70270).

Last night we watched a film followed by a sporadic thunderstorm, the lightning strikes getting ever closer then passing overhead, luckily not striking the huge power supply line running over us. Our nights sleep was peppered with the noise of rain hammering on Dave’s roof.

This morning we were out of the sosta by 10am, on a mission to move somewhere new and Tarquinia was our target. Lovely satnav didn’t know of the nice wide motorway, so kindly directed us over hills and through towns until we could finally see the sea. Driving into Tarquinia we only knew one thing about the place, it’s famous for its Etruscan tombs, about 6000 of them in total of which around 3% were highly decorated. Jay had looked them up on the internet and spotted an interesting fresco on Wikipedia; “Two men are portrayed flagellating a woman with a cane and a hand during an erotic situation”. To be fair Jay has been intrigued by many of the cemeteries we’ve come across on our travels, so I’m sure the fresco isn’t the only reason for suggesting a visit.

As we approached the town I noticed a field full of strange small brick buildings, Jay joked it was probably a posh pig farm, but as we passed it was clear from the entrance sign that this was the necropolis where all the tombs were. We parked next to the road as there wasn’t a car park to be found and after a quick leg stretch of Charlie we headed in. For €8 each we got entry to the necropolis and the museum in town where the some of the artefacts found in the tombs had been moved to – those that hadn’t been robbed before being discovered. Armed with a photocopied piece of paper telling us which tombs were open – it’s done on a rotation basis to protect them – we headed in.

The pig sty style huts covering the entrances

The little pig sty huts had been constructed to protect the entrances to the tombs, each had a heavy metal door opening onto a steep set of steps down into the dark. At the bottom was a door with a glass window and a light switch – press the button and a Etruscan tomb magically appears in front of your eyes. We’ve visited a few Roman sites as we’ve travelled and knew there would be quite a few of them in Italy, but never thought that here the Romans would be the new kids on the block, even the name Rome is believed to be Etruscan! Unfortunately the origins of the Etruscans are lost, historians have no literature and no texts of religion or philosophy. Most of what is known about them comes from grave goods and tomb findings.

The entrance steps down to a tomb.
If you couldn’t afford a tomb your ashes would go into urns and then into stone holders like these.

It was mind-boggling to think just how old the tombs and paintings before us were – some were painted as early as 700 BC – yet we could sit there and look at the images of life at that time. Of course it was only the rich who could afford such a luxury, so many of the images were of dancing, eating, lions and dolphins, the things you’d want to be surrounded by once you were dead. We spent a good hour or so wandering in and out of the dark (I took to keeping one eye shut when outside so I could see better on the inside), up and down the stairs looking at people from a time long ago.

One of the painted tombs
This bloke cleverly ordered a door to the afterlife to be painted in his tomb so he could find his way.
The couple eating, on the right, are the ones who commissioned this tomb.
Typical day fishing and being attacked by birds

Eventually, and with no sign of the naughty fresco, we headed back to Dave and drove the 700m to the main town car park. Parking up on a slope we took Charlie out for a walk around the town, the place was deserted, shops were closed and the only sign of life came from the odd car hurtling down the narrow streets. A good walk tired us out so we chilled out in Dave for half and hour before Jay and I set off to the museum. It’s housed in a Renaissance Palace (where else?) and after walking through two rooms we reached a door which said rooms 5,6,7,8 and 9 were closed due to technical reasons. We thought that was our lot, after all we’d only paid an extra €2 on top of the necropolis entrance fee to get in the museum. Then we spotted room 10. Not only was there another room, but there were also another two floors!

The National Museum in Tarquinia, nice palace!

The ground floor is full of sarcophagi that had been discovered in the tombs, they had so many they couldn’t have them all on display, or inside – broken ones lined the outdoor corridors. The second floor was filled with the goods from the tombs, jewellery that wouldn’t look out of place if worn today, urns, jugs, coins, toys, even an umbrella and finally; plates with naughty images on them!

Looks like the dead liked to rest on one elbow in Etruscan times
Too many sarcophagus, too little space, they’re littering the stairwells
Like many this fellow was carved on the lid of his sarcophagi, only he had the foresights to hold a scroll outlining his ancestry.
More faces from 2,500 years ago!
Etruscan necklace with lots of little people on it

We were getting a bit Etruscaned out by the time we reached the top floor. The sun had set and the noises coming through the windows told us that the town was finally coming to life, but we ploughed on until we reached the final room. Here there were four more tombs, some clever so and so’s in the 1940’s had discovered a way to get the images off the walls and onto fabric which they stretched over a frame to make a tent shape with the images on the inside. Nowadays they have 3D scanners so they don’t do this any more, but it was a genius way to preserve the worst affected of the tombs.

Finally we spilled out onto the street into the Passeggiata, evening stroll time. Normally I’d be the first to grab an ice cream and join in, but by now my stomach was rumbling and we’d passed a couple of fast food shops on our way into town that had me trying to remember the last time I had chips. Jay was hankering after some chicken and the first place we tumbled into had both. We established that we wanted take-away through the art of mime, and proceeded to have our carrier bag filled with hot, tasty, deep-fried goodies.

Scoffing them back in Dave we looked over the map, we were parked on quite a slope and the flattish area of the car park around us was busy and the spaces small, so when we finished eating we did another bit of night driving – not our favourite kind of driving – and headed the 5km to Tarquinia Lido, its beach resort. Only it’s December and the resort is firmly closed, even the parking signs are covered in black bags, so it’s a free for all – yet for some reason we’re the only ones in the car park, less than 100m from the beach.

Charlie and Jay have already been to check it out, but it’s pitch black, and the black volcanic sand didn’t help, so there’s another trip planned for the morning, I’m sure Charlie is already dreaming about it – he loved the beach. Jay and I have cracked open a bottle of Montefiascone’s cheapest red and it’s going down well, even though we’re both stuffed with chips. Tomorrow we head for Rome where we’re stopping in a campsite for a week to use up the last of our, about to expire, camping cheques. My first job will be to hit the laundry as our laundry/drinks cupboard is so full we’re having to drink all the alcohol to make space, shame!!

Ju x

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